Brotherhood and Fratricide in Three Balkan Works

Angelina Ilieva, Northwestern University

My paper examines images of brotherhood as representations of the ideal national community in three national identity narratives from the Balkans. In particular, I focus on a figure that recurs with disturbing consistency—that of fratricide as the dark obverse side of the ideal social bond—and on a narrative dynamic that transforms fratricidal violence into sacrifice. I contend that the sublime terror of violence within the image of the ideal community is a key source of the compelling force of these images.

Informed by René Girard's work on violence and the sacred and Slavoj Zhizhek's study of the sublime in ideology, my dissertation explores the mythologizing strategies through which the radical alterity of violence becomes the very core of the symbolic system that posits the nation. The movement is circular: because the horror of fratricidal violence is intolerable, the texts imagine its source to be an external force that has tarnished the integrity of an ideal community. The murder of a brother is an outrage, because it results from pollution by the violence of a demonic Other, but also a sacrifice, because it terminates the disorder triggered by the menace of that Other. As sacrifice, it purifies the brotherhood and "restores" its edenic unity. In bringing to life this potential, external violence is internalized as a constitutive force of the community. As the traumatic kernel within the sacred, the Other's violence is generative of community, since it resists rationalization and compels the national memory to return to the trauma repeatedly, thus spurring the fascination with the image of the national self. The narratives in question claim to embody precisely that national memory. In them, brotherhood (as ideal and as sacrifice) becomes the source from which the vitality of the envisioned nation emanates.

Concurrent with the political integration of the Muslim minority in Bulgaria, Anton Donchev's novel Time of Parting (1964) argues for an ethnic over a religious definition of nationality. Like the fruit of an apple tree, Christians and Muslims stem from the same root; they are brothers and should live as such. The narrative embraces the Bulgarian Muslims as brothers, yet with a shudder: it perceives them as the heirs of unnatural violence, made graphic by a description of a body impaled on a pole. The text does not find closure until that violence has been redeemed through sacrifice (of a Christian brother) and revenge (on a Janissary brother). Through these acts, Bulgarian moral strength takes on mythic proportions, and the nation is sanctified.

The Knife (1983), by Yugoslavian novelist and politician Vuk Drashkovic, uses the substitution of infants orphaned by a Christian-Muslim fratricide to explore the role of violence in identity-formation. The work stages the internalization of trauma—the character's life is informed by his hatred of the unknown enemy—and insists on the shortndash;circuiting of violence: in the search for his own identity, the protagonist discovers that the family he considers his own is the enemy on whom revenge is due. The knife becomes a metaphor for identity: the latter contains within itself the violence, actual and potential, of the "knife."

Finally, I look at the "de-mythologization" of the image of the nation as brotherhood after the onset of Yugoslavia's fratricidal wars. By enacting the mythic sacrifice, the wars provoke more circumspect artists to strip the myth of its mystic aura. In his 1994 film Before the Rain, the Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski does not lend a sacred aura to fratricides committed for the sake of ethnic purity but presents them as meaningless accidents of heated tempers. By denying them any ritualistic quality, Manchevski deprives these murders of the symbolic framework which would sanctify them. He exposes a bloodthirsty monster at the heart of the quest for ethnic purity, a monster which is concealed when violence is consecrated as sacrifice.